The Archive Lady: Framed Photographs

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Melissa Barker, aka The Archive Lady, shares her advice on why you should NOT display framed original family photos at home!

Donna in Michigan asks: “I have inherited a lot of old family photos in frames. I think I should take the photos out of the frames and store the photos flat in archival boxes. Am I right?”

Donna’s question is perfect for this particular week since it is the American Library Association’s Preservation Week. This week libraries, archives, museums and other facilities that collect and preserve records raise awareness about records preservation.  Photographs are a part of our family history that we all cherish and we should be protecting.

Melissa Barker, aka The Archive Lady, shares her advice on why you should NOT display framed original family photos at home! 
Framed Photos, Melissa Barker’s Collection

Donna is right: original photographs in frames are not the best way to preserve and protect the images. Once these photographs are framed, they are usually hung on walls or placed on tables throughout our homes. It is understandable that we would want to show off our ancestors and so we put their photographs out there for everyone to see and admire. But this could be causing more damage than we know and we should be taking steps to prevent this damage.

As an archivist, I have seen firsthand the damage framing an original photograph can do. My professional advice to anyone wanting to frame original photographs is to refrain from doing so. When original photographs are framed and put on display they are susceptible to damage from several sources.

First and foremost, framed photographs can be damaged by the sunlight that comes in through windows, doors, etc. Exposure to sunlight will washout or lighten the image in the photograph. There are several photographs that have been donated to the Houston County, Tennessee Archives that are so faded from sunlight exposure that it is difficult to see the actual image. Unless there are no windows, doors or any other source where sunlight can come through, it would be difficult to display photographs without the concern for sunlight damage.

Melissa Barker, aka The Archive Lady, shares her advice on why you should NOT display framed original family photos at home! 
Photograph Damaged by Sunlight, Houston County, Tennessee Archives

Additional hazards faced by our framed and displayed original photographs? Accidents. These accidents could happen to photographs as they hang on the wall or sit on the table. For instance, if the framed photograph is not secured to the wall correctly, it could eventually fall off and hit the floor. When this happens, there is a possibility that the glass could break and a shard of that glass could puncture or tear the photo. If the photo is displayed on a shelf or table, there are normal everyday events that could knock the photo off the shelf or table and again the glass could break and cause damage.

One of the most destructive hazards that could happen to framed, displayed photographs is fire. In 2001, my father-in-law experienced a house fire that burned his house to the ground and he lost everything. This event taught me the importance of not framing original photographs. He lost every original photograph that was framed and on the walls or displayed on shelves and tables. These photographs can never be replaced.

Another aspect of fires that is a hazard when it comes to their photographs is that when the fire occurs and the homeowner is trying to get out of the house, they try to grab their photographs on the way out. My husband was an insurance adjuster for over 20 years. He worked many house fires and met with the homeowners to help them through the insurance claims process. He tells me that the #1 comment made by every homeowner who experienced a fire was: “I lost all my photos; I didn’t have time to grab them off the walls and tables”.

Other natural disasters such as flooding, tornados and earthquakes could effect and damage your framed original photographs.

So, what is the best way to frame or display photographs so that they can be enjoyed by anyone who enters the home? Make high quality photocopies of the original photographs then display the copies and archive the originals. Once you have scanned the photo, create your own quality print. One method is to upload the file to an online service such as Wal-Mart Photo Center, place an order for printing, and pick up the photo. At some photo centers you can also just bring in the photo and they will scan and print it for you. In addition, if you have a color printer and use photo quality paper, you can create your own copies of the photograph. Taking this one step of displaying high quality photocopies of original photographs is a great way to preserve those originals.

Legacy Family Tree Webinars and Quick Guides by Melissa Barker

To properly preserve old family letters and envelopes, please watch my Legacy Family Tree Webinar Preserving Old Family Letters: Tips from an Archivist or read my Legacy Family Tree QuickGuide on this subject:

Preserving Old Family Letters: Tips from an Archivist Webinar

Preserving Old Family Letters: Tips from an Archivist Webinar

Preserving Old Family Letters: Tips from an Archivist Legacy QuickGuide

Preserving Old Family Letters: Tips from an Archivist
Legacy Quick Guide

PDF version:

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Melissa Barker - The Archive Lady

Melissa Barker lives in Tennessee Ridge, Tennessee. She is the Houston County (TN) Archivist and a Professional Genealogist. She writes the blog, A Genealogist in the Archives, and has been researching her own family for over 26 years. She lectures, teaches and writes about researching in archives and records preservation. 

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